Years ago, when my great-grandmother May (whom I’m named after) got really tickled, she would laugh so hard she’d lose her top denture. The entire family would erupt into hysterical laughter and those of us who were already laughing would begin to cry and hold our sides.

Thankfully, May laughed right along with us! One Christmas, I remember her winking at us kids, and then popping her top denture out on purpose, as her blue eyes danced. Somehow, her loose dentures made a happy memory.

Many of my Christmas memories—even the unglamorous ones—still make me smile, even though they happened years ago.

I remember the funny things a lot more than I remember the gifts.

I remember the excitement of celebrating together, more than my troubles.

I remember the things that touched my heart: the traditions, the love, and the sense of belonging to a family.

(That’s my family pictured above, Christmas 2015)

While there isn’t any one recipe for creating happy memories, each one of us has the right “ingredients” on hand to make a merry Christmas–we just need to remember to use them. The frivolous “tinsel” of materialism can spoil the batch. Empty selfishness and negative thinking can turn the holiday bitter. But carefully mixing in things that are meaningful, good and true makes Christmas truly merry.

Only you can decide how much of each ingredient to use. I’ve used examples from my own life to encourage you to find just the right mix for your family to make wonderful memories this year.

Recipe for a Merry Christmas:

A Generous Portion of Laughter. My great-grandmother May was unselfish enough to laugh at herself, instead of being defensive about growing older, and she ended up happier for it. Her joyful, self-deprecating sense of humor made us laugh and love her even more. I want to be like that. Open to laughter. Letting go. Loosening up. I’m now aware that May had suffered many sorrows, but she taught me that it’s okay to laugh, anyway. Even if our year has been painful, it’s okay for us to laugh a little, too. This Christmas, use a generous portion of laughter, in spite of troubles, because Christmas promises us that there is much more joy to come.

A Heaping Cup of Giving. Unfortunately, I’ve focused way too much on receiving at Christmas, rather than giving. I hate that because I don’t even remember many of my presents. Oh, but I vividly remember the time my family took gifts to a needy family in a ramshackle house out in the country. I remember the grateful, hopeful look on their faces when we unloaded a carload of gifts. Even decades later, I can still feel the joy of giving to that family. Giving blesses us far more than getting. Visit someone in need. Send a gift. Hug. Encourage. Extending God’s love to other people makes the merriest Christmas memories of all.

A Sprinkle of Fun Activities. One year my husband’s family (in Nashville) bundled up and took a holiday hike around Radnor Lake—I still remember how much fun we had. Once our family (including grandma) cooked a complete Italian meal together—bruschetta, homemade pasta, stuffed peppers and panzanella (bread salad–see recipe below). Sharing activities gives us a reason to turn off our TV’s and relate to each other–which is how fond memories are born. What activity might your family enjoy? Plan one and enjoy the memories for years to come.

A Pinch of Christmas Past. Every Christmas, my Mama makes her grandmother’s ambrosia with fresh oranges and shaved coconut (it’s the orange stuff on the table in the picture above). She often recalls how blessed her family was to have fresh oranges during the Great Depression. Ambrosia is a pinch of Christmas past that we still enjoy. Sometimes at Christmas, we laugh about the time we cut down an enormous cedar for our Christmas tree—it looked kind of small until we tried to fit it in the house. It took up half of the room! One year, we spent Christmas in Big Sky, Montana. As we rounded a hairpin turn on Christmas night, a giant bull elk stood in the middle of the road. Amazingly, we missed both the elk and the icy Gallatin River below–I’m still not sure how–but once we were safe, we laughed all the way home. Reliving your favorite memories of Christmas past brings new joy.

Unlimited Celebration. Sometimes, it’s easy to overlook the reason for the season. This Christmas, celebrate the birth, life and death of Jesus Christ. Celebrate the rich blessings of eternal hope, joy and peace He came to give us:

A child has been born for us. We have been given a son who will be our ruler. His names will be Wonderful Advisor and Mighty God, Eternal Father and Prince of Peace. His power will never end; His peace will last forever. (Is. 9:6-7)

Retell the story of His birth. Talk about what His life means to you. Discuss His coming back to earth. Read a few verses or a poem. This is one of my favorite readings for Christmas:

A Solitary Life

He never wrote a book
He never held an office
He never went to college
He never visited a big city
He never traveled more than two hundred miles
From the place where he was born
He did none of the things
Usually associated with greatness
He had no credentials but himself

He was only thirty-three

His friends ran away
One of them denied him
He was turned over to his enemies
And went through the mockery of a trial
He was nailed to a cross between two thieves
While dying, his executioners gambled for his clothing
The only property he had on earth

When he was dead
He was laid in a borrowed grave
Through the pity of a friend

Twenty centuries have come and gone
And today Jesus is the central figure of the human race
And the leader of mankind’s progress

All the armies that have ever marched
All the navies that have ever sailed
All the parliaments that have ever sat
All the kings that ever reigned put together
Have not affected the life of mankind on earth
As powerfully as that one solitary life

What “ingredients” have I missed? Please add your ideas in the comment section below!

Have a very Merry Christmas!

May

Recipe for Panzanella (Marinated Bread Salad)

Special Offer: Buy my book, Seeking a Familiar Face, and I’ll send you the rest of my delicious recipes I brought home from Italy: pasta with garlic sauce, stuffed zucchini and gelato. Maybe your family can make an Italian meal together over the holidays. Once you purchase a book, simply email me at hello@maypatterson.com to request the recipes.